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Stiffer penalties for texting, driving

Saturday morning while drinking coffee with a White Hall resident I got an earful from his son, an accountant who said he recently drove from Pine Bluff to Little Rock and was passed by at least six drivers on Interstate 530 who were speeding and texting on a cell phone at the same time.

“If we can have ‘Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)’ we should have ‘Mad Mothers Against Texting,’ ” the CPA asserted.

His father, a 93-year-old veteran of the classroom and business world, agreed.

The accountant warmed to the subject, noting the number of work zones on I-530 between White Hall and Little Rock that require the full-time attention of drivers.

“You can tell they are texting because they have their heads down,” he said of the violators. “It is pure inattention to driving a car or truck.”

Act 181 of 2009 prohibits drivers in Arkansas from texting or sending email from their handheld devices while driving. The legislation is referred to as “Paul’s Law,” after Paul Davidson of Jonesboro. The father of three was fatally injured in a head-on crash with a driver who was typing a text message to his girlfriend.

I knew Paul, having worked with his mother for several decades. The tragedy was compounded for me because I had known Layne Blanchard, the driver sending the text message, and his family for a number of years.

Layne, charged with a felony in the traffic death, became despondent and later shot and killed himself.

Two young men died as a result of a text message.

“I am all for raising the fines for texting while driving,” Layne’s father, an emergency room physician, wrote in an email. “Texting is dangerous and ill advised. However, I would also like to see similar fines for driving without your seat belt.”

Paul Davidson was not wearing a seat belt when the collision occurred, according to the investigating state trooper’s report.

The possibility of a $100 fine for texting and driving is not a deterrent and the penalty should be much harsher, several state legislators maintain.

While texting and driving is a primary offense, meaning the police can stop a driver solely for texting while behind the wheel, it does not appear to be heavily enforced.

Six people appeared in Little Rock Traffic Court in 2011 with citations for texting and driving, a court clerk said. Data for 2012 is not available.

Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, said state troopers have issued 185 warnings to drivers for texting and driving since the law took effect. He said he did not know how many citations had been issued.

Arkansas State Police started tracking cell phone roles in accidents in 2007.

Several lawmakers contend they are asked to “pass a lot of laws that are unenforceable just because they might be feel-good law,” noting how few citations had been issued since Act 181 became law.

The accountant said the texting law should be enforced strictly.

While he was expounding on the subject he received a call on his cell phone from a client. Based on what little I heard of the conversation, the call dealt with a tax question.

After the call ended, I noticed the accountant spent several minutes typing information on the keyboard of his cell phone. He observed my interest and explained he bills clients for his time.

“I’m working, not driving,” he explained. “I’ll bill for this (the call). My time is all I got.”

He views billing differently from texting.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by email at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.